Posted by Michael Franklin –

Harassment online is becoming increasingly common, however many people don’t realize there are laws to protect victims and prosecute the offenders. Massachusetts General Law states that anyone who conducts continuing malicious behavior specific to another person that results in substantial emotional distress and alarm is guilty of criminal harassment. This includes internet communications and is punishable by imprisonment not to exceed 2 ½ years and/or a fine of $1000 (punishment increases on 2nd offense).

Recently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld a lower court ruling that found a couple guilty of harassing their neighbors using internet posts and other methods. They had been found guilty under Massachusetts law, statute G.L. c. 265, 43A (a). The court concluded that the sole reason for the offenders’ speech was to harass the victims and therefore, the speech is not shielded by the First Amendment.

Contrary to common perception that teens and younger children are the only targets of online bullying, much harassing has been directed at adults to scare, alarm or damage their reputation. Although many states have laws prohibiting internet-based harassment, offenders have historically not been criminally prosecuted.

In this case, the Johnsons began to harass a neighboring couple (the Lyons) after the Lyons decided to subdivide their property. Their first act was to have a friend place a fictitious posting on Craigslist offering free golf carts and included their address and phone number. Next, they posted another fictitious ad on Craigslist listing a motorcycle for sale with instructions to call the listed number after 10pm. They then sent an email containing the Lyon’s personal information including social security numbers from a fake email account. The subject of the email was “Let the Games Begin”. They also used their friend’s phone to contact the police and falsely report child abuse by the Johnsons.

In the case of Commonwealth versus Johnson, the court ruled that on three separate occasions the accused couple was guilty of willful and malicious conduct causing alarm and emotional distress. The verdict marks the first time Massachusetts Judicial Court found criminal conduct under the harassment statute.

By setting a precedent, this decision will be referred to in subsequent harassment actions brought before The Massachusetts Courts. Both individuals and businesses are increasingly experiencing harmful online harassment through social media and other website postings such as Craigslist. This conviction in Massachusetts will likely encourage similar arguments of criminal harassment to be brought before courts in other states.

Because this is an evolving and complex issue, it may be difficult to convince authorities that you have an actionable complaint. If you find yourself a victim of malicious targeting and online harassment, it would be helpful to work with an attorney to prepare evidence for law enforcement agencies.